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15 March 2020

There are two things I remember about the very long bus ride from Sepilok to the lodge on the bank of the Kinabatangan River.

The first is this: A few days earlier Don had fallen on a hike in Bako National Park and had a wound on his arm that we’d finally gotten properly cleaned and dressed by a doctor in Sandakan. Two days later, on the bus to Kinabatangan, more or less at the beginning of what is to be a very long day, Don quietly tells me that the bandage on his arm stinks. I smell it. It smells like dead meat. I have visions of gangrene. Don has thoughts of sepsis. It feels urgent. We don’t dare unwrap it and have a look because this time we don’t have the first aid kit with us to replace the dressing. We quietly freak out, but sitting there on the bus there is absolutely nothing we can do; after a while we both let it go.

The second thing I remember is miles and miles and miles of palm plantations. The palm oil industry. It has stripped most of Borneo, and many other parts of the world, of its natural tropical forest. I’ve heard about this, but this is my first time seeing it. For three hours just about all we see is palm plantations. It makes me sad.

Despite the palm plantations Borneo still has a deep sense of mystery about it. It feels like a secret, and has long been a place of fascination for explorers with its soaring mountains, waterways, and dense forests. We only have a few days in Borneo, and every one of them feels enchanted.

The Kinabatangan River, the second longest in Malaysia, rises in the mountains to the east where it begins its 563 kilometre (350-mile) journey to the sea. For the most part flowing through a broad, heavily forested plain,

it culminates in a wide delta at the Sulu Sea, and we are on our way to cruise along the river. The original lowland forests have survived and they have some of Borneo’s highest concentrations of wildlife.

After about three hours we arrive at a remote jungle lodge on the banks of the river. There is accommodation, and communal bathrooms, and a large dining area. Some people stay for two or three nights. It reminds me a lot of the jungle lodge in the Amazon, all weathered wood, with half open walls and fans whirring in the rafters overhead. In the dining room we are served tea and coffee and a snack (home-made donuts I think it was. I don’t quite remember, but I do remember having several because they are so good). Wild monkeys stalk along the rafters, hoping to get a quick snack. The staff shoo them off with a stick but they are smart and wily. If you don’t guard your plate well enough you’ll lose your food in a flash. There are dozens of them around the lodge – pig-tailed macaques and long-tailed macaques, clever troops that know how to get a quick meal if you let your guard down.

Soon it is time. We all buckle up our life vests and pile into the boats. For a long time we simply travel down the river. There is nothing but dense jungle on either side

and then suddenly a white egret.

We keep on going. I’m beginning to wonder if we’ll see anything because we’re going quite fast down the centre of the river when suddenly a boat comes towards us. The guide in the boat puts his wide-open hands against his ears and flaps them back and forth. It is a clear signal. There’s an ellie ahead! Yes!

The Borneo Pygmy elephant can grow to be about 2.5 metres (8ft) tall. The Asian elephant can reach a height of 3 metres (9.8ft), and the giant of them all, the African elephant, can grow as tall as 4 metres (13ft). Although smaller than their Asian and African relatives they still hoover up over 90 kg (200lbs) of vegetation – every day! At first sight they look much like other elephants but relatively their ears are bigger and they have long tails that almost reach the ground. They are found only on the island of Borneo, and there are about 1500 to 2000 of them left, the biggest threat being habitat destruction . . . . .

On we travel down the river until at last we come to another boat stopped by the shore and pull in next to it. And there it is: a Borneo Pygmy elephant wallowing in the mud at the side of the river.

I sink so deeply into presence that I cease to exist. All that exists is this lucky luminous moment: the ellie heaving itself slowly up out of the sucking mud,

the low golden light, the lush green grasses and forest. There’s a glowing aliveness to it all that takes my breath away. Time folds in on itself and disappears, until at last the elephant is fully upright, and without a backward glance and with mud still clinging to its back, it ambles off into the jungle.

And then it is over, but I am elated by this rare sighting. I could just about shriek with joy and feel that if we see nothing else the trip has been worth it.

We see plenty more. Our guide turns the boat around and heads back to the lodge but this time slowly slowly slowly, looking from side to side. On the ground and in the trees by the bank are troops of monkeys, dozens of then, feeding, grooming, playing. We see both long-tailed macaques,

and pig-tailed macaques

of all ages and sizes from the tiniest babies to big alpha males.

Borneo has 10% of the world’s species of primates, including of course orangutangs. We don’t see any orangutangs on this trip, but we see plenty of macaques. They are the Asian equivalent of Africa’s baboons and seem to be able to survive anything. We saw them everywhere we went in India from Tamil Nadu in the south to Uttarakhand in the north. They are one of the world’s most successful species of urban wildlife, able to live comfortably around people. Often it’s not so comfortable for the people; we were always wary of them in India with good reason. But here in the Bornean jungle, watching them in their natural habitat, I feel as if I’m really seeing wild macaques for the first time.

We pass by an Asian Water Monitor clinging to a tree,

and we also see Proboscis Monkeys. Dozens of them. They are native to Borneo and unique in several ways, the most obvious being their comical nose. Apparently the bigger your nose the more the girls will fall for you. The males produce a loud honking sound; that would be something to hear! No one really knows why they have such big bulbous noses though scientists posit that it creates an echo chamber that amplifies their call thus impressing females and intimidating other males. It seems as good a theory as any and apart from this there doesn’t seem to be any reason for them. Proboscis Monkeys are highly arboreal, rarely coming down to the ground, and indeed high in the trees is where we see them.

They have huge pot bellies that are basically large fermentation vats that break down sugars and detoxify poisonous leaves so they can survive on a low quality diet. They’re endangered due to the usual habitat loss and humans hunting them for food and Chinese Medicine ingredients. There are estimated to be about 7000 of them in the wild.

Moving slowly along the river we see several troops of them, each troop being a harem with one male and several females and their young. They travel throughout the forest swinging wildly from tree to tree, and at the end of the day they roost for the night high in their arboreal sanctuary.

Headed back now we pass by another camp, the river reflecting the golden radiance of late afternoon

and as the light fades and we travel the final few hundred metres to the lodge. A huge lavish meal awaits us. We pile our plates high, head to a table out on the veranda, and eat as the sun sets casting a soft glowing light over all.

Weary and full in so many ways we climb into the bus for the long drive back to Sepilok. Of course the first thing we do on arrival back at the resort is to take the stinky bandage off Don’s arm to discover with a huge sigh of relief that it is only the bandage that needs washing. His wound is fine and healing well. We put on a new clean dressing and fall into bed, exhausted and deeply content. Borneo you’ve done it again!

All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2020.